Washington, DC - Social Security Matters by AMAC’s Certified Social Security Advisor C.J. Miles, Association of Mature American Citizens:
QUESTION: I don’t have my own Social Security benefit, but I am entitled to a spouse’s benefit when he files. He is worried that I will not have enough to get by if something should happen to him since my spouse’s benefit is only half of his. Will the amount of money I get as his spouse change if he retires at an earlier age than 66?
ANSWER: Actually, it does. As you know, you only get half of his Social Security benefit at the most, and that is only if you file for a spousal benefit at your full retirement age of 66. But the rules are a little different for a surviving spouse (widow) benefit. If he were to pass away before you, you would be entitled to as much as 100% of his benefit at the time of his death. So what this means is that if he files early and his benefit is reduced, then your widow’s benefit will be reduced. The opposite is also true – if he files after age 66 and gets delayed retirement credits, your widow’s benefit will also include the delayed retirement credits. If he passes away before he files, your widow’s benefit will be based on what his benefit would have been if he had filed before he died.
You need to keep in mind that in order to receive the full surviving spouse benefit, you have to be full retirement age (66). You are allowed to take it as early as age 60, but it will be at a reduced amount (surviving spouse reductions are calculated differently than other benefit reductions). Furthermore, if you take a spousal benefit now, it will have no effect whatsoever on your future widow’s benefit. Any possible reduction you may receive will be based on what age you take the survivor’s benefit, not the original spousal benefit.
QUESTION: My husband just passed away at the age of 67. He had not started collecting his Social Security yet because he wanted to get as much delayed retirement credit as possible. In the meantime, I have been getting a spousal benefit because he filed and suspended. Social Security told me that I can get a survivor’s benefit that is equal to what he would be receiving if he started collecting right before he died. Can I wait to collect so that it can continue earning delayed retirement credits for another 3 years?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, no. Social Security did give you correct information in that your widow’s benefit is the equivalent of what he would be receiving at the time of his death. Therefore, any possible delayed retirement credits (DRCs) he would have received up to that point is applied to his benefit and subsequently given to you as a widow’s benefit. However, DRCs cannot continue to be accumulated and applied to the widow’s benefit once the spouse has passed away regardless of how old he was at the time or how old you are when you collect the benefit.
QUESTION: My wife just passed away. I hadn’t really thought about a widower’s benefit from Social Security because I just assumed I would be the first one to go. But unfortunately, this is what happened. Her benefit was higher than mine, so I was told I might be able to get a larger Social Security payment. Do I file for that or does the Social Security office automatically change my benefit to a widower’s benefit?
ANSWER: It all has to do with your age and current circumstances since surviving spouse benefits (like any other Social Security benefits) are reduced if you take them before full retirement age (66).
There are two general circumstances that will cause your benefit to switch automatically. The first is if you are already 66 or older and entitled to a spousal benefit. The second is when you are younger than 66, entitled to a spousal benefit, but not entitled to your own benefit. It does not sound like this second circumstance applies to you, though, since you mentioned you have your own benefit.
So, you need to file for the survivor’s/widower’s benefit if you are currently getting a spousal benefit that was reduced because you took it earlier than full retirement age AND you are younger than age 66. Also, since taking the surviving spouse benefit at an early age will reduce the widower’s benefit, if you fall under this category you can continue getting the benefit you are currently receiving and file for your surviving spouse benefit later. Just remember that you cannot earn delayed retirement credits on a surviving spouse benefit.